It was July 2012 – a hot month in Tennessee for both weather and politics – and the members of Tennessee Center for Self Governance were facing their toughest challenge ever. Only seven months old at the time, the TCSG was created to help Tennesseans rediscover, own, and preserve their civic authority. They weren’t concerned with political theory, but instead wanted to teach everyday people how to influence legislators. As part of their mission, they paid particularly close attention to the bills being passed through the legislature. That’s when they witnessed first-hand the favor-trading which sadly characterized Tennessee’s state government. “We began to see how politics was being played,” said Mishelle Perkins, one of the founders of TCSG. “When you grow up, you’re taught how a bill becomes a law. However, it’s not ever a thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote based on whether the legislation is good. Everything is more covert. We saw that it was ‘you voted for me, so I’ll vote for you.’ Or, it’s ‘you didn’t vote for my bill last time around, so I won’t support you now.’” The compromises of politics, of course, aren’t news. However, Perkins was rather new to all this. In fact, four years ago, she was a stay-at-home mom in the suburbs, unconcerned with the intricacies of Tennessee government. When she realized the country was heading in the wrong direction, she “got off the couch and created the 912 Project of Tennessee.” It was particularly disappointing to witness the government’s inefficiencies up close. “We were able to see who was orchestrating so many of the problems, and we went after her.” According to Perkins, the ringleader of the “good ole boys” network wasn’t a “good ole boy” at all. She was Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart, the first female chair of the majority caucus. “It was a David versus Goliath story.” Prominent Republicans campaigned and raised money for Maggart, including Governor Bill Haslam and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey. She was up 15 points in the polling against her opponent, retired Air Force officer Lt. Col. Courtney Rogers, and seemed unbeatable. However, as the fight unfolded, the “Davids” gained a powerful friend. The National Rifle Association ended up targeting Maggart because she didn’t push through legislation that would’ve allowed workers to store personal guns in their vehicles parked on company lots. Suddenly, a billboard depicting Maggart with Barack Obama – an unpopular President amongst Tennesseans – popped up, along with a concerted ad campaign against the formerly popular GOP leader. While money is integral in any political race, “all politics is local” as the old saying goes. In other words, national endorsements are frequently ineffective without a strong, well-organized ground game. That why it was so important that these local Tennessee political activists threw their weight behind Rogers. “We provided an invaluable layer of focused, grassroots help, ” Perkins said. Grassroots support is always critical to victory in a race like this, and requires the help of on the ground activists like Perkins and her group. Though they worked directly with the Rogers campaign, they didn’t merely man the phone banks or knock on doors. Instead, they applied their theories about educating citizens. “Getting volunteers to run a great ground game is tough,” Perkins said. “But we applied all of our principals to make sure we stayed on message.” “Why do you support Rogers?” Perkins asked one volunteer who was making phone calls on behalf of Rogers. “Well, she’s better than Debra,” he responded. “No,” Perkins said. “We need to have good messaging and be more sophisticated in our understanding of what’s going on.” And so, right there in their office, she held an impromptu civics lesson with this citizen volunteer, to make sure he understood all of the underlying issues of the race. The battle against the Chairwoman became a chance for the founders of TCSG to test their theories of educating citizens. “We wanted to teach from experience,” Perkins said. “So we did a mission for 30 days straight. We even left our families.” After spending so much time and effort on this cause, nerves were tight on election night at the Rogers headquarters at Millersville Community Center in Sumner County. Sounds of a mandolin emanated from the four-piece string band on the raised platform, calming the gathering of anxious supporters. The founders of the TCSG were right there with Rogers, hoping it would be the scene of an improbable victory party. A month before, no one would’ve expected Rogers – a stay at home mother of three – to be able to pull this off. “But when Debra won her home precinct by only 10 points,” said Perkins, “we knew we were going to win.” In fact, Rogers went on to win by a whopping 16%, a shocking percentage in a race against a local GOP favorite. “We were very excited obviously, and felt we had a big impact on the race.” TCSG hopes to pass on the lessons learned from this campaign by offering educational training and practical exercises. “There’s nothing Einstein about this,” said Perkins. “It’s very simple, because that’s the way government is supposed to work.” By the end of the course, the students can choose between two options: they can learn how to successfully run for elected office and effectively legislate from within the government, or they can learn how to hold those elected officials accountable by learning the skills of a professional activist. By January of 2013, one hundred students had gone through at least the first level of the educational process. Class by class, person by person, the TCSG continues to encourage Tennesseans to rediscover, own, and preserve their civic authority. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they are suddenly popular in Tennessee’s political circles. “We were told [our victory] was an anomaly by the house leadership,” Perkins said. “But we’re still watching and learning. So, we’ll be the ones producing the candidates of Tennessee’s future.” FAQ: Aren’t there TEA Party groups? Why supplement them with the TCSG? The TCSG began in October 2011, in a meeting in Jackson, Tennessee. Perkins – along with Kurt Potter, Rachael Proctor, and Mark Herr – believed the various TEA parties were strong, organized, and even funded. However, they felt there was a missing piece of the puzzle. “By this time, it seemed people had attention deficit disorder. We saw a phase missing from what many tea party activists identified as their goals,” said Perkins. “The TEA Party, we noticed, was sometimes unsophisticated, and their blood pressure was always up. We were attacking on anger, but not policy. That’s when we retrenched, recalibrated, reformulated, and refocused like a laser beam on a solution.” In this article, two stay-at-home mothers turned into political activists. Should all moms get out of the car line and start knocking on neighborhood doors? Definitely not! Raising civically minded children is fundamental to having a free society, and people are called to engage the culture in different ways. However, the government will only work when normal, everyday people start paying attention to their elected officials’ activities. There are ways for people in all walks of life to engage the political process. If the TCSG is a 501(c)(3), how could they work on a political campaign? The TCSG educational 501(c)(3) organization. However, the founders of this organization also have a separate political organization which allows them to participate in political activism. The two entities are not related. What can I do to help preserve civic authority? If you live in Tennessee, the TCSG will come and give groups of people — ranging from 4 to 20 students — an hour-long presentation on their efforts. This will teach you and your friends the best way to engage in the political process, will inform you about the classes the TCSG offers, and will assure you that you aren’t alone in your concern for your community. If you live outside of Tennessee, contact the TCSG anyway. They have already traveled to three other states to create similar organizations, and they are ready to share their knowledge about self-governance across state lines. After all, self-governance is not a “Tennessee value,” it’s the oldest American value. What sort of media support does TCSG have? TCSG has found the print media to be biased towards the people in power. However, they have made inroads with some powerful people on Tennessee’s talk radio stations. Radio personality Steve Gill was helpful in getting the message out, as well as Michael DelGiorno on SuperTalk 99.7 WTN. Additionally, Perkins combed through online blogs and newspapers, and found the website Everything Hendersonville, whom she invited to one of their first events. This site became very helpful as an ally of getting the word out during the campaign. In this way, the “new media” was an integral part of their success. How can you connect with the TCSG? Tennessee should be known around the nation as more than the home of country music. If you are ready to make Tennessee famous for citizen-controlled government, contact the TCSG via their website, follow them on Twitter, and fan them on Facebook. What’s next for the TCSG? The TCSG is packing their bags and heading to the largest conservative conference in America, the ACU’s Conservative Political Action Conference March 14 – 16. There, the TCSG will make a presentation to conference goers during two breakout sessions. Additionally, they get to introduce Sheriff Mack, the former sheriff from Arizona, who has been a two-time candidate for United States Congress. The four founders of TCSG will be debuting their new workbook, which goes along with their educational classes. “If you’re heading to CPAC, the TCSG would love to connect with you,” said Perkins. “Follow us on Twitter for updates, and come to our breakout sessions.” See the CPAC schedule here.